Archive for William Finlay

Joined at the Hip

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2018 by dcairns

SISTERS (1972) was the first film where Brian De Palma, hitherto a maker of provocative comedy, turned Full Hitchcock. It still feels the freshest of his thrillers, even when it’s secondhand — the PSYCHO playbook must have been open at Brian’s bedside while he was dreaming it up. We also see clearly where BDP differs from the Master — split-screen shots never figured in Hitch’s visual vocabulary, though one robbery sequence in MARNIE seems to hint at the possibilities with a divided frame ~

The tone is also much different — BDP’s feints towards Wagnerian grandeur are largely absent, but his “impish” humour (remember, imps are creepy, stunted, discoloured little guys) is more prominent, and still has an element of satire. (Whereas what is the comedy in RAISING CAIN actually about? Purely self-reflexive, I fear.) So the opening game show sequence — Peeping Toms, a kind of Candid Camera affair where the victims are encouraged to cross ethical boundaries — makes for a funny and weird intro. I especially liked the pan across the audience with the weird guy (De Palma’s pal William Finlay) reading a book in the front row. I’d have liked him even better if he’d just been a pure visual non-sequitur. He is in fact a plot point, and by standing out in a crowd he’s mimicking Bruno at the tennis match in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

The opening establishes Lisle Wilson’s character as a nice guy, since he resists peeping at Margot Kidder, and the TV show serves as a meet cute. Other De Palma films have not been so rigorous in making us care about the people. Wilson, of course, is being set up for the Janet Leigh role in PSYCHO. The charming couple go on a date at the ridiculous African Rooms (waiters in grass skirts with the top halves of tuxedos, piped-in jungle noises, SATIRE!) and she gets sloshed, which combines attractively with the French-Canadian accent she’s affecting. Kidder is so cute here — before she got painfully thin — I don’t know how we didn’t all notice on SUPERMAN that this woman was in some kind of trouble — maybe because she’s so damn good in it we gave her a Karen Carpenter-style pass.

Lisle Wilson went on to appear in the wretched INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, whose poster appears on a wall in BLOW OUT (I think it’s a missed opportunity that the Pennsylvanian exploitation filmmaker in that one isn’t played by George Romero — a man who hated going to the dubbing suite). His niceness may be compromised a bit by the fact that he takes the inebriated Kidder back to her place and sleeps with her — is she too drunk? Or just right? They’re followed by the sinister book-reading man.

(At his Edinburgh Film Fest appearance, some oddball in the audience asked BDP what books he’d read lately, phrasing the question as “You’re obviously an intellectual guy…” BDP rambled on, agreeing, and mentioned a TV series he’d been watching on PBS. So, not a big reader, I guess.)

In the morning, Kidder has an argument with her offscreen twin (and we’ve had a big closeup of the unconvincing and overdone lumpy scar on her hip) and runs out of her mysterious medication. De Palma shows the pills accidentally falling down the plug hole in slomo, another trick he likes far more than Hitchcock — see also Sean Penn’s discarded bullets in CARLITO’S WAY. Lisle goes out to get her more pills and also acquires a birthday cake since he’s learned it’s the twins’ birthday.

“Now I know my ABC…”

AND THEN spoiler alert HE GETS MURDERED. Really great creepy physical performance from Kidder here and she turns chalk-white. The movie’s made-up psychosis, which is apparently triggered because she’s half an hour late with her pills, seems to have aspects of epilepsy thrown in. Also, weirdly reminiscent of Peggy Lynch in THE ALPHABET. White person on bed plus splatter. Raspberry-hued blood, the most unconvincing ever. For some reason, all stabbing victims in this film get it in the upper thigh. Femoral artery — genuinely nasty. Also, Brian is teasing our castration anxieties (see also: DRESSED TO KILL and the Gratuitous Penectomy Conversation).

Then he gets stabbed in the MOUTH, which is fucking horrible, even though the tattered latex prosthetics are completely lousy, not even attempting to look like a knife-wound, just doing what the materials want to do, which is shred and flap. But it doesn’t matter because it’s so unpleasant conceptually and so disfiguring. You feel bad for the guy — not only does he die, he dies wearing unconvincing make-up.

Splitscreen as Lisle crawls to the window and scrawls HELP in his own blood — mirroring the icing on the cake he helped prepare (which totally changes from shot to shot, by the way). He’s seen by intrepid and mildly counterculture journalist Jennifer Salt — later she talks about witnessing the entire murder, which is weirdly not what she sees at all.

Oh, and Bernard Herrmann’s score, which is excellent, is FREAKING OUT during the murder. It’s like the most extreme sound he ever made. The savagery of PSYCHO but with the delirium of TAXI DRIVER (still unborn). It’s like the composer himself is being traumatised by the New Hollywood. Or like Benny is saying, “Gee, these kids are really amping things up — I better do likewise.” He’s about the only example of a film composer of his generation doing major work with the movie brat generation, and those films otherwise tend to depend on source music, or sound design, or pop songs, or gentler scoring by low-key minimalists like the aptly-named Michael Small. John(ny) Williams noodled around for years doing modest and quirky stuff before connecting to old-school grandeur and oomph with JAWS.

From here on, there is some depletion of interest. We have not only lost the sympathetic Lisle, we’ve kind of lost Kidder, since she now seems to be conniving to conceal her crazy twin’s murderous act — in fact, we are SO far ahead on this… BDP will spend about an hour investigating and expositing what we guessed as soon as we saw the rubbery hip scar and overheard the “conversation” “between” the “sisters.”

In fact, despite the plot’s tacky nonsense-science, there’s a smidgen of truth. I saw a documentary about conjoined twin separation once, in which only one child survived. She was only about three. “She seems to be having some trouble with her identity,” reported a clinician. She was sometimes referring to herself by her sister’s name. She couldn’t work out where her sister had gone, and it was somewhere between a bereavement and a phantom limb. There was a suggestion that, in operating while the kids were so young, the doctors may NOT have acted for the best, but only time would tell.

So the big reveal here, that the “normal” Kidder twin has SPOILER created a psychic substitute, a split personality which keeps her sister alive (EXACTLY like Mrs. Bates, yes) is perhaps not so dumb. Only the film’s treatment of the idea is crass and silly. But kind of entertaining.

For light relief, we get a comedy-relief annoying mom (Mary Davenport), also straight out of Hitchcock, and Charles Durning as a private eye (likewise), who brings a lot more interest to the role than the writing suggests. There’s a big hypno-flashback that’s kind of tacky but amusing but redundant since we already guessed everything, and then a funny, unlikely ending which kind of ties off the plot in an intractable knot. Salt has a hypnotic suggestion implanted which causes her to deny the murder ever happened — so the once-skeptical cop, who now WANTS to listen to her, can’t learn anything. And the dead body of Lisle is sealed up in a folding sofa-bed, impossibly, and shipped to Canada. During follows, waiting to see who collects the couch. And he waits. And waits… anyone who knows about the couch is dead or in custody or brainwashed…

De Palma, in his next production, should include a shot of a skeleton dangling from a telephone pole in order to pay this one off.

“This place is… possessed!”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2009 by dcairns

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If you want my opinion, Gerrit Graham is the whole show.

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Tony Dayoub’s DePalma Blogathon here.

Brian DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE — his name is above the title, despite the fact that who the hell was he, anyway, in 1974? — is an oddity in his career, a career strung with oddities. Despite perhaps borrowing its bird imagery from PSYCHO, and featuring probably his funniest take on the shower scene, PHANTOM isn’t particularly a Hitchcock-referencing film, which sets it apart from SISTERS beforehand and OBSESSION afterwards. The movie does feature a replay of TOUCH OF EVIL’s opening long take, though, with a split-screen twist. I think in this case he ruins the song and creates confusion rather than clarity (for much of the sequence both images show basically the same action), but it’s still an amusing trope, somehow.

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Has DePalma somehow obtained custody of a dead little girl, and mounted the tiny corpslet on wires like some kind of macabre marionette? Or has he hired Paul Williams to act in his film? I’m not sure which is the greater outrage against taste and decency. Williams provides the score, which contains enjoyable but not truly memorable songs — the big problem is probably that they don’t feel specific to this story. The plot details the mounting of a rock opera based on Faust, but the songs don’t seem that specific to that either. Even when the Faust plot invades the main storyline in an outrageous and rather-unprepared-for supernatural twist, the songs don’t really mesh with it. But they’re good little toe-tappers while they’re on.

Depressingly, DePalma’s script derives more from the Claude Rains PHANTOM than from the Chaney, despite name-checking that film’s leading lady, Mary Philbin. This means that practically the first half of the movie is an origin saga, before the Faustian pact can get going, and the relationship between the Phantom (William Finlay, still working for BDP in 2006’s THE BLACK DAHLIA) and his muse, Phoenix (Jessica Harper) is relegated to a couple of lines of dialogue. That’s often been my trouble with DePalma’s “sweeping and Wagnerian” romantic side — he can’t spare the time or effort to suggest a real relationship, so the love interest is gestural and generic and totally fails to move me.

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But — PHANTOM is so popping with ideas, and so strikingly designed by Jack “the man in the planet” Fisk, that such problems, while certainly central and critical, do not prevent a good time from being had. Meeting Finlay in his pre-phantasmal geekdom robs him of all the grandeur Chaney possessed, but DePalma is aiming for a more pathetic creature of the night anyway, albeit one who has inexplicably acquired the ability to punch through walls.

“Style will always convince cinematic purists that the surfaces they admire contain depth, and that clear shortcomings in disguise. DePalma isn’t logical, so he must be impressionistic. He isn’t realistic, so he must be surrealistic. He isn’t scrupulous, so he must be audacious. He isn’t earnest, so he must be ironical. He isn’t funny, so he must be serious.”

So writes Martin Amis in The Movie Brute, his very funny, grossly unfair but quite well-aimed takedown of DePalma and his pretensions to greatness, written as BDP was shooting BODY DOUBLE (which would have given Amis a lot more grist to his mill had he been able to see it in time). Amis’s sarcastic remarks (leaving aside the fact that most of them could equally well apply to himself) are, in a way, literally true, in not quite the way he means — if only by default, DePalma is surreal and audacious and the rest. He can also occasionally be funny, but perhaps not frequently enough to fill a whole movie. PHANTOM is funny while Gerrit Graham is strutting and preening as rockstar “Beef.” BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES has André Gregory ranting about Don Giovanni (his introduction, given several times: “This is Aubrey Buffing, the poet. He has AIDS.”) RAISING CAIN has a fantastic John Lithgow turn, and another dead child in a fright wig (“It is a bad thing that you are doing!”). WISE GUYS has Joe Piscopo and isn’t funny at all.

DePalma addressed this comedic lack when he appeared at the Edinburgh Film Festival: after averring that he wasn’t afraid of anything, he admitted that he probably wouldn’t be making any more comedies anytime soon. And yet he practically began as a comedy director: that’s one word used to describe GREETINGS and HI MOM! anyway, and then there’s the Tom Smothers movie and PHANTOM. I think maybe DePalma’s sense of humour is a little too outre for popular taste, like Polanski’s, and his technique doesn’t really lend itself to chuckles — I can recall a 360 degree pan in WISE GUYS, and it didn’t really work as a gag-delivery mechanism. Plus Polanski and DePalma can’t help throw in unpleasant little details that make the laughter shrivel in your throat — here there’s a gratuitous tooth-pulling episode that leaves the Phantom with a ritzy set of steel gnashers. He doesn’t USE them, but there they are.

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Jessica Harper, who’s had a surprisingly psychotronic career for such a nice-seeming girl (SUSPIRIA, SHOCK TREATMENT, SAFE, even MINORITY REPORT) has a big voice and a beautiful little-girl face. She’s good at looking perplexed, which is helpful here. And she dances like a mad aunty at a drunken party.

I don’t know why Gerrit Graham isn’t at least as famous as, say, Al Pacino. On this evidence, he should have his face on a stamp for services to lisping and mincing. It must be difficult to act this good without attracting the attentions of the vice squad, but anyhow we can cherish him in this film, threatening to erupt all over the audience like a protoplasmic Roman candle, a bipedal outrage who makes overacting a religious calling. He should be in every film, giving this performance. It would improve EVERYTHING.

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When he’s not about we can admire Harper and the sets (dressed by Sissy Spacek!) and stare slack-jawed at the multi-talented Paul Williams, with his tiny hairless body, bri-nylon cancer wig, groovy shades and jaunty philtrum (I want a film in which he plays Ron Perlman’s conjoined twin and I want it NOW). DePalma’s nightmarish, nihilistic ending, a sort of gothic Altamont revenger’s tragedy, left me feeling woozy and a little depressed, but I was glad I’d been on the PHANTOM ride. Always, with the pleasure, a little malaise.

1) At Edinburgh Film Fest, DePalma asked his driver, a friend of mine, for a lighter. My friend passed one over. DePalma pocketed it. Are other people just walking dispensers of stuff to Brian?

2) He tried to get a young female producer to sit on his lap, and when she politely declined, he spanked her.

3) Fiona walked with him from one party to another. “How much farther?” whined BDP, like a big baby. Quote from Amis’s profile ~

“‘Hitchcock was sixty when he made PSYCHO. I don’t know if I’ll be able to walk when I’m sixty.’ A curious remark — but then Brian is not a good walker, even now, at forty-four; he is not a talented walker.”

Still, at 69, Brian is still walking and still making films, and they’re still interesting and undiluted and personal. That deserves some credit.

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UK buyers:

The Moronic Inferno

Phantom Of The Paradise [DVD] [1974]

US buyers:

The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America

Phantom of the Paradise